This Passover, when we sit down to our Seders, the mention of Egypt will very likely have a new and different resonance. It certainly will for us.
My husband John and I returned from the ancient land in November, just two months before the revolution. (Things heated up considerably after we left Zimbabwe, too, and the Tienanmen Square massacre occurred shortly after our departure from China. Was it something we said?)
Our Egypt journey was enlightening in so many ways. Thrilling, too. We love antiquity, and in Egypt, we wallowed in it. Mind-bogglingly enormous temples and pyramids, constructed as far back as 5,000 years ago. Still standing, undiminished. I used to think Greece and Rome were the cradle of our Western civilization. But those two cultures invaded Egypt late in its development and co-opted many ideas from the Egyptians. As in earlier times, there were large Jewish populations in all parts of Egypt during the Greco-Roman period (300-30 BCE). Jews and Egypt have a long and enduring history.
What undoubtedly intrigued and attracted cultures like the Greeks and Romans was the Egyptians’ intricate cosmology, written language, architectural prowess and their ability to make use of the Nile that sustained and flooded them every year.
In modern times, too, it’s hard not to fall for the Egyptians. In addition to their boundless generosity, they’re open, friendly and playful. This characteristic was notable in everyone from the kids to the cab-drivers, the archaeologists to the street-vendors. I loved the omnipresent lightness and jocularity, though it didn’t fully mask the subtle undertone, a straining at the bit, a whispered hope for freedom and democracy. But who knew it would come so soon, with such intensity?
The right trip…and the Great Pyramid
When you’re in the midst of antiquity of that enormity, you need time to absorb the expanse of it all, time to feel the energy of these powerful places. After a months-long quest, we found the perfect trip, from a company called All One World Egypt Tours (www.1worldtours.com), run by a terrific Rhode Islander, Ruth Shilling. The impressive two-and-a-half-week itinerary, called “Time and Space in the Temples and Pyramids,” included special arrangements such as two hours within the Sphinx enclosure and two hours inside the Great Pyramid — just our group of 14. Ruth, a spiritual leader, college professor and concert violinist who’s made 54 trips to Egypt, scheduled the trip so we arrived at every site when all the other tourists were leaving; we had almost every locale to ourselves. We got up close and personal with the Sphinx, and the Great Pyramid was all ours for a time.
The Great Pyramid of Giza, also called the Pyramid of Khufu (to Egyptians) and Cheops (in Greek), is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one that remains intact. Built around 2650 BCE, 480 feet high when it was constructed (the erosion of the outer casing has decreased its height), it remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years (surpassed in 1,300 by Lincoln Cathedral in Canterbury, England).
The structure is neck-snapping in size, created from 2.3 million blocks, some weighing up to 80 tons each. When first built, it was covered by white casing stones that formed a gleaming outer surface. What we see today is the underlying core structure, which only looks smooth from afar; it’s actually jagged up close. The present height is 455 feet, and each side is 755 feet wide (it takes a long time to walk around the perimeter).
We made the arduous climb into the king’s chamber and, appreciating the incredible acoustics (also true in the queen’s chamber), we hummed, intoned and marveled at how our voices crescendoed into something as heavenly as a choir of angels.
Then, each of us had a chance to lie in the king’s chamber sarcophagus. Ruth had arranged for the internal Pyramid lights to be turned off for 15 minutes. It was pitch black. Incredibly silent. Vibrating with the ancient energy.
I was lucky enough to be the one in the sarcophagus when the lights went out. It was an encounter with the past I won’t soon forget. (If you’re even a tad claustrophobic, this might not be your cup of travelers’ tea; the narrow passageways into the tombs and pyramids are dark, close and low-ceilinged; not for the faint of heart, short of breath or weak of knees). But for me, being deep inside that 4,500-year-old edifice was a head-spinning, time-traveling experience.
There were so many breath-taking moments on this trip, so many temples, so many still colorfully fresh-looking 4,000-year-old drawings and hieroglyphs to decipher. And so many surprises, like the temple of Hatshepsut, the only female pharaoh in history. Did you know there had even been a female Pharaoh? The ancient Egyptians did everything to erase her memory, including rubbing out her image on many temple walls. But the gorgeous mortuary temple she commissioned in the 15th century BCE, nestled into the cliffs on the West Bank of the Nile across from Luxor, is so beautiful, so strikingly modern in design, it looks like it could have been built yesterday.
But amid all this grandeur and glory, I began to have nagging doubts and questions.
First, did my ancestors actually build the pyramids at Giza, as I’d been taught in Hebrew school?
Various finds in the workers’ villages and tombs show that the pyramid-builders were not Jews. They weren’t even slaves. They were, apparently, hired hands, and their own village hieroglyphs showed pride in their work and praise for their pharaoh (some called their teams ‘Friends of Khufu’ or ‘Drunkards of Menkaure,’ the third pyramid’s namesake). The walls show records of payment, of medical services.
It took an estimated 20,000-30,000 workers more than 80 years to build the pyramids at Giza. It’s highly unlikely they were Jews.
As Amihai Mazar, professor at the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University has noted, “No Jews built the pyramids, because Jews didn’t exist in Egypt at the period when the pyramids were built.”
Okay, check off one concern.
Then, there was the problem of Ramesses II. He was the most prolific of the pharaonic builders; he reigned for an astonishing 66 years (1279-1213 BCE), and his likeness and temples are everywhere along the Nile. His gargantuan Ramesseum, on the West Bank of Luxor, is most likely what inspired the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write the 1818 poem, “Ozymandias,” that I learned in school and never forgot, about how power and glory and hubris never endure. Of course, as memorable as the verse is, the fact is that the pharaohs’ creations have endured, astonishingly well.
But I had a hard time with Ramesses II (there were 12 in the line of Ramesses). I’d been told — not least of all by Cecil B. DeMille in “The Ten Commandments!” — that he was the pharaoh who motivated the Passover holiday, the one who enslaved the Jews, would not “let my people go,” and forced the God of Israel to bring down the Ten Plagues, igniting the Exodus from Egypt. Could that monster be the same monument-builder who inspired a timeless poem? It was cognitive dissonance for me.
Then, Ehab Mahmoud, our magnificent Egyptian guide, a trained Egyptologist, pulled me aside when we were in the Valley of the Kings, also on Luxor’s West Bank, and said he had something important to tell me. He said it wasn’t Ramesses II at all during the Exodus. It was another pharaoh named Merenptah.
Ehab pointed out Merenptah’s tomb, which was, alas, closed to the public (there are only certain tombs accessible at any given time). I surreptitiously snapped a photo (no pictures allowed, inside or out, at the Valley of the Kings), and under a brutal, cloudless sky, I sat down and meditated at the mouth of the tomb, made a little connection with Pharaoh Merenptah and had a few choice words to say to him. It was a healing moment for me and put me at peace with my past for a while.
The Exodus from Egypt — Both of Them
When I returned home, I did some research on the Exodus. Not only do many serious students of history — Jewish, Egyptian and otherwise — doubt that the Exodus ever happened (there is little, if any, physical, literary or archaeological evidence), but those who do believe are in considerable conflict about what year the Exodus occurred and which Pharaoh was in power at the time.
Merenptah (who ruled from 1213-1203 BCE, and was the 13th son of Ramesses II — that guy is still involved!) is definitely a contender. But he has a lot of competition: Ramesses I, Akhenaten, Horemheb, Ahmoses, etc. Choose your source or investigator; each makes a compelling argument. I dealt with Merenptah kind of personally, so I’m sticking with him. You can do your own research and reach your own conclusions.
One Exodus from Egypt that’s not debatable is the one that occurred in the 1950s, under the directive of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Between November 1956 and September 1957, thousands of Jews had their possessions confiscated, thousands were arrested and thousands more were expelled from Egypt. (All those expelled had to sign a pledge never to return.) Of the 80,000-100,000 Jews in Egypt in the 1950s, only 8,500 remained by 1960. By the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, only 800 Jews were left.
When we hired a driver to take us to Old Cairo, we visited Ben Ezra Synagogue, one of the world’s oldest temples. Outside, in the narrow alleyway, standing at a table selling a few Jewish trinkets and displaying an article about himself from the New York Times, I met a man who’d been working with the shul for 40 years.
Ahmed Sherif is a Muslim; I guess you’d call him the “Shabbos goy.” He told me Ben Ezra was built in 882 CE on the ruins of a Coptic church. Services, he said, were held there for 1,000 years. The great physician/scholar/philosopher Moses Maimonides (1125-1204) was said to have prayed there. Ben Ezra was also the site of the big find of the 18th century: the Cairo Geniza, hundreds of thousands of Jewish manuscript fragments, dating back to 880 BCE, discovered in the temple genizah, or storeroom. They included Jewish religious writings (and sections from the Qur’an) as well as court documents and community correspondence.
There are still three standing synagogues in Cairo, but only Ben Ezra is open to the public. The 98-year-old Shaar Hashamayim is heavily guarded (we weren’t allowed to take photos, even outside); it’s only open on Sundays. Ahmed said Shabbat is observed at Shaar Hashamayim and Chanukah at Ben Ezra. That’s how he attracted my attention; he called out “Happy Chanukah!” as I walked past. That stopped me in my tracks. (I must’ve had that latke kind of look.)
That, after thousands of years and millions of Jews, whose history has been intertwined with Egypt’s, and not always in a bad way.
For instance, there’s a striking similarity between Pharaoh Akhenaten’s Hymn to the god Aten, written in the 14th century BCE, and the Old Testament Psalm 104; the wording is almost identical (“How manifold are thy works?”). Millennia later, in 1979, Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
So this Pesach, I’m going to think very differently about Egypt and the Egyptians. They’re not just some ancient anonymous enemy any more. Faces of the wonderful folks I met are etched in my mind (we’ve sent them money in these tough times), coupled with images of the other courageous people who took to the streets this year to fight for their own freedom, bravely overthrowing a modern-day Pharaoh.
I have newfound respect for what their ancestors built and hope for what they have the potential to create for the future. I’m going to pray they achieve their democratic aims — and continue their peaceable relationship with Israel. That, as the Seder song goes, would be enough. Dayyenu.